Self-Portrait: Chihei Hatakeyama

Chihei Hatakeyama is endlessly prolific; in the span of 15 years, he’s released approximately 80 albums across contemporary ambient stalwarts like Room40, Kranky, and his own White Paddy Mountain imprint. Based just outside of Tokyo, Hatakeyama has been an integral part of the Ambient music scene in Japan, collaborating with a constellation of like-minded artists and issuing other artists’ work on the aforementioned White Paddy Mountain. 

Scanning through the cover art of his discography reveals a fascination with landscapes, snow, and expansive spaces. His music has a similar glacial and panoramic quality to it that recalls the serene drift of Jim O’Rourke’s Steamroom series, working in snapshots of daily life in the form of field recordings. Born from a palette of electronics and heavily processed guitar, he refines and shapes these improvisations into new forms. His most recent release arrives courtesy of UK jazz label Gearbox, showing the commonalities between jazz improv and Hatakeyama’s approach to ambient music. 

In Hatakeyama’s own words, his music embodies the Japanese aesthetics of “wabi sabi”, finding beauty in the transience and imperfection of improvisation. His mix for Stamp the Wax is a collection of these improvisations, which he refers to as “base shapes” for his recorded output. It spans glitch, populated field recordings and reverberant guitar strum. Coupled with an interview that delves into his musical upbringing and artistic development, it’s a unique insight into his creative process.

Let’s start with an ice breaker, what’s your earliest musical memory?

I remember singing the song ‘Green Green’ by The New Christy Minstrels during my playtime at kindergarten. It was quite impactful as it had an amazing melody and rather dark lyrics which was different from any of the other nursery rhymes I was used to singing. It brought feelings I’d never felt before through music.

Looking back, I understand it was the feeling of being touched, but back then I wasn’t aware of what exactly was happening to me. That’s how I realized music is such an amazing thing. In terms of the lyrics, the Japanese version had been rearranged involving a character that didn’t exist in the original song, and that is why the song ended up being darker. 

Did you have a particularly musical upbringing?

The first cassette tape I was given was of a Japanese manga ‘Kinnikuman (Ultimate Muscle)’. The story is about superheroes constantly fighting a wrestling tournament. It had a comical element whilst also being serious, which had me confused. Every single character in the story had its own theme song, and I used to listen to them. I also listened a lot to the theme song from the ‘Gundam’ movie. The song is inspired by King Crimson and is quite identical. I was surprised to find that out when I started listening to King Crimson after growing up.

Other than that, my father used to play a lot of music while we were driving. Japanese musicians such as Eiichi Ohtaki and OMEGA TRIBE as well as The Beatles are what he listened to the most.

I must also mention video game music. I used to play the music from the ‘Final Fantasy’ series on TV and record it on cassette tape. Junior High is when I started to listen to music proactively, but I had a hard time liking the early 90s hits which were mainstream back then. It sounded like all of a sudden it became this commercial sound as the result of mass production. The 80s hits I could still feel the existence of the songwriter in each song, which is why they still sound great after all these years.

So in junior high, I listened to hits from a decade ago, as well as this band called Off Course from the 80s. The vocalist of the band used to play a Prophet-5 and that is how I became interested in synthesizers. Only after high school did I start listening to overseas music from the U.S.A and U.K. I was more into video games and soccer in my junior high years.

What led you into music production?

In between graduating junior high and entering high school, I decided to pick up an acoustic guitar which was lying about in my house for no particular reason. At that time I was debating whether to continue playing soccer in high school, or if I should find something else to do. After enrolling into high school, this kid who was sitting in front of me asked me if I wanted to join his band. I’d only touched the acoustic guitar once at home, but I guess the kid misunderstood me being good at it. And that is how I started playing music.

Back then I was so clueless and didn’t even know what a bass was. I thought it was a keyboard. It was so difficult in the beginning as I had no rhythmic sense, but after about a year, I was playing metal with the guitar. I continued playing music in college but wanted to play original songs so decided to search for a vocalist. Unluckily, the first vocalist that I scouted was inducted into a cult religion. One by one, other band members started joining the cult as well. That’s when I thought I needed to keep a distance from them. I then formed another band, but once again faced relationship problems and decided I’d had enough with bands. Instead, I compiled instruments and created an environment where I could play music on my own. Around the same time I met Tomoyoshi Date with whom I formed opitope later on, and started creating music together alongside my solo works.

Are there any producers or artists who have inspired your production?

There are so many. Jim O’Rourke, Stephan Mathieu, Loren Connors, William Basinski and many more. Ryuichi Sakamoto was a big inspiration too. I remember the time I went for a job interview at a Mexican restaurant in college, and they asked me who is someone I respect. I’d never thought about such a thing but the name Ryuichi Sakamoto just came out of my mouth. I guess it has to do with him being a successful musician even outside of Japan, and I used to dream of being able to play globally as well. By the way I ended up not getting that job at that Mexican restaurant…

Are there any particular rituals you go through before you head into the studio?

Wake up in the morning, eat rice and natto (fermented soybeans) with miso soup, watch soccer, calm myself down and then I start my work at the studio.

Do you come in with a destination in mind before starting a jam?

It depends. There are times where I don’t have a destination, or an idea of the content, and just improvise as I go. This tends to work out well particularly when I bring in new equipment. However in recent days, I am chronically facing the struggle of coming up with new ideas. After all these years of creating music, improvisation without thinking will only end up with similar ideas. Which is why I think thoroughly about what sort of performance to put on, beforehand. I tend to do this while watching soccer. I don’t really pay attention to the game, it’s just there as a guidance to my thought stream. One time I was asked to create film music and for that I improvised as I watched the footage, which was also a refreshing method. So I sometimes put on a film or some sort of video, mute it, and improvise based on the inspiration I get from the footage.

Are you the type of producer to work on a track until it’s perfect, or are you more of an impulsive creator, happy with first takes and sketches?

The answer is both. I never put down a musical phrase and then record it over and over, I guess I’m more of an impulsive creator. However, when it comes to a concept, performance technique, or chord progression, I will keep recording until I find the performance to my satisfaction. So in that sense I am more discreet.

Can you talk us through how you might construct a track?

First I improvise and record guitar and modular synth as the base. In doing so, I make sure to record both something that is already established from the improv, and something with an assumption of adding overdub later on. Using that “base” I will add on sounds with overdubbing, or add effects with modular synth and a software synth called a reaktor. Once that process is done, I move on to mixing. This is my typical process, but not a must as I also like to experiment with the method as I go.  

How much of your material is sample based and how much is original?

I used to create albums using samples but I rarely do that anymore. However, I still believe sampling is an effective method when it comes to songwriting, so it is important that you learn it.

What are the most important bits of kit that make a Chihei Hatakeyama track?

In terms of instrument, it’s the electric guitar, and as for an effector it’s eventide’s SPACE, and recently CHASE BLISS AUDIO’s CXM1978. The reverb is superb.

This mix is 100% original Chihei Hatakeyama material. Could you tell us a bit about it? Any tracks that are particularly special to you?

This mix mainly consists of my recent improv material. These are the base shapes and I usually edit, mix and overdub onto them. Which is why, this mix is a compilation of unfinished tracks. Some of them are rather experimental so I am not sure if I will end up releasing them. To be honest with you, after finishing creating this mix, my main computer broke down and I had to get a new one, but now I am newly set up. There aren’t any tracks that are particularly special, but I do believe each and every one of them has potential. 

Anything on the horizon for you? Any releases we should know about?

Once this Covid-19 pandemic is over, I’d like to go on tour again. All my 2020 tours were cancelled. However, I ended up spending a lot of time in the studio and got to experiment. I think that achievement will be applied to my future releases.

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